Time for the Linux Desktop

I've always been, well, skeptical about the Linux desktop. Now, I use one myself, KDE on top of SuSE Linux 8, thank you very much, but then I know Linux.

I’ve always been, well, skeptical about the Linux desktop. Now, I use one myself, KDE on top of SuSE Linux 8, thank you very much, but then I know Linux.


I mean, come on, I was using Unix before Linus looked at Minix. I’ve been perfectly happy with interfaces like the C shell. For that matter, I still am. I spend a lot of my computer time in terminal windows using bash, with vi as my text editor and elm as my e-mail client. But how many people are like me?

Well, if you’re reading Linux Magazine, you probably don’t go back as far as I do with *nix operating systems, but chances are you are comfortable with a command line. Outside of Linux fans, though, there are whole generations of users who’ve never had to use a command line.

And you know what? On modern Linux desktop systems, you don’t need to know shell programming 101 or even how to grep your way to a text string. In fact, you don’t even have to know what grep is, for that matter.

Easy to use Linux distributions like Lindows, Xandros, and Ark are making it possible for anyone to sit down at a Linux machine and become as productive just as quickly, if not more so, than if they had sat down to a Windows or Mac OS computer. Indeed, with Xandros, I’ve set Windows-using friends in front of it, and after hours of use, they thought it was an exotic version of Windows. It worked the way they thought Windows would work and they were none the wiser. Ignorance was bliss.

Now, I know that attitude may rub some Linux desktop users the wrong way, but the point of a desktop operating system is to let someone get their desktop work done as easily and efficiently as possible. If a Windows user can do that and never know whether it’s KDE, GNOME, or BlueCurve under the interface, all the better as far as I’m concerned. We spend way, way too much time debating over the advantages of KDE versus Gnome, as has been the case with Bruce Perens’ UserLinux project.

The truth of the matter is that most users don’t care. After all, most of the advantages of Linux are hidden from desktop users anyway. Its stability, security, and far superior multitasking are largely invisible to most users. Power users will catch on that their system is a lot more stable and so on, but most of tomorrow’s users won’t see the difference.

You see, tomorrow’s Linux users won’t be like you and me. They’ll no more care about their desktop operating system’s underpinning than they currently do about Windows. To them, Linux will just be this operating system that works better than the alternatives. Indeed, to them it will be just how they get their work done.

This trend is being helped in large part because desktop applications have also become easier to use. I used the early versions of StarOffice, Applixware, OpenOffice, and WordPerfect Office on Linux, and frankly, I wasn’t that impressed. So, if I had to use an office program, more often than not I ran Microsoft Office either on Windows or Win4Lin, which enables you to run a Windows 98 or ME virtual machine on Linux.

That was then. Today, I use OpenOffice on both Linux and Windows. It’s that good. If I needed more, I’d probably use the latest StarOffice, or if I were in a corporate office, I’d probably be pressing for Sun’s Java Desktop System (JDS). JDS, by the by, is essentially StarOffice and some other bits and pieces customized for a server-based environment.

Again, applications will be like the operating system; users won’t think about their application choices all that much. They’ll just know that they can write their notes, run a spreadsheet, and so on without worrying about the application or the interface.

As part of this, Linux is going to lose a lot of its excitement. Indeed, it already has. Looking at January’s LinuxWorld agenda, I don’t see open source programmers speaking. Instead, I see the CEO of Novell. I see Oracle and IBM executives.

Linux has become the business server operating system of choice, and it’s on its way to becoming a desktop operating system, first for cost-conscious consumers and then for business. Maybe it won’t be as much fun for those of who love technology for its own sake, but Linux will be a lot more popular.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is a long-time Unix guru and technology writer. He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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